“Our piece of Paradise”: Patterns of human activity in coastal zones of the Aegean basin in the Middle Anthropocene (late 2nd-early 3rd millennium AD)


The paper presents the results of an archaeological survey of the the Aegean region, which combined systematic pedestrian and underwater survey with extensive use of remote sensing techniques (including satellite imaging and ground penetrating radar) to document patterns of human activity in the coastal zones during the Middle Athropocene era (late 2nd to early 3rd millennium AD). The authors also refer to contemporary documentary, epigraphic and iconographic evidence in order to reconstruct the social and historical context of the survey findings. It is argued that the spatio-temporal patterning of the findings represents cycles of politico-religious activity in which the power of “being” was embodied in the sacred landscape. Ultimately, the cycles of creation and destruction, the appropriation and de-appropriation of land and resources represented in these usage patterns inscribe on the landscape the contestation of public and private spaces characteristic of a “weak” polity struggling to establish public rights over the assertion of private “wants”.

The survey findings


Reconstruction of a Type 1 temporary coastal structure, Aegean, early 3rd millennium AD.

Our survey has documented a range of structures and material evidence relating to the human occupation of the coastal zones of the Aegean basin during the Middle Anthropocene (late 2nd-early 3rd millennium AD). We divide these structures into two broad types and posit different, specialised uses for each. Type 1, which will be the focus of this study, consists of structures of perishable natural materials found in close proximity to the ancient coastline. Type 2 are more permanent structures, predominantly of reinforced concrete, sometimes found on the coast, but also further inland. Elsewhere we have demonstrated that this latter type structures exhibit the full range of domestic activities, and can therefore be safely described as habitations. We will therefore concentrate on the former, more enigmatic structures.

Type 2 permanent structures in coastal woodland, Aegean, early 3rd millennium AD (via greekarchitechts.gr).

We used a combination of underwater exploration and surface survey to conduct a detailed examination of a number of Type 1 structures and collect materials for study. The configuration of the coast changed dramatically over the period covered in this study, as glacial melt due to anthropogenic climate change caused sea levels to rise in excess of 1 metre over a period of 100 years in the early 3rd millennium, and shorelines to retreat between by about 400 and 6,500 metres. The inundation of the coastal zone had beneficial effects for the preservation of organic construction materials (primarily wood and reeds), which has enabled us to reconstruct Type 1 structures in some detail.

Spatial distribution of irregular structures, late 2nd-early 3rd millennium AD, showing high concentration in coastal zones (Map of registered illegal constructions via greekarchitects.gr).

Through a combination of satellite imaging techniques we have been able to document and date quite precisely the evolution of the coastal landscape, which shows an accelerating pattern of infill in the latter part 20th century AD and into the 21st century.

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Evolution of the coastal landscape in the survey area of Keratea, East Attica, 1950-2009 AD (via K. Chatzimichalis on athenssocialatlas.gr).

In the case of Type 1 structures specifically, our excavations have been able to determine that their usage was strictly seasonal, with pollen analysis showing that they were in use almost exclusively in the summer months. Moreover, artefact-rich layers are often interspersed with barren sandy strata and burnt horizons. The stratigraphic record thus shows a longer term cycle of what appears to be deliberate destruction (razing) by mechanical means and sometimes burning, followed by periods of abandonment and reconstruction. We attempt to explain the significance of this pattern in conjunction with epigraphic evidence at the end of the paper.


Material culture


Domed kylix and kalamaki, made from polyethelene terephthalate. The base bears the stamped legend “Made in China”.

By far the most common find associated with Type 1 structures is the “domed kylix“, a lightweight drinking vessel with a domed protective cover bearing an aperture for a drinking kalamaki (straw), based upon the high percentage of domed kylikes found containing complete or partial kalamaki. Residue analysis of the interior of the kylikes revealed in most cases traces of the berry of the plant Coffea arabica, a shrub native to the Arabian peninsula, known for its mild stimulant properties. The use of the cup suggests that it was imbibed in liquid form, while the straw is reminiscent of the earliest Mesopotamian depictions of beer drinking, suggesting that the drink was surmounted by a foamy “head”. The purpose of the protective dome is unclear due to the varied and often disturbed contexts within which the kylikes have been found; intriguingly many such domed kylikes are found in stratigraphic association with carbonised Nicotiana tabacum (see discussion infra); it is possible that the dome may have been intended to keep ash from settling in the liquid (sacramental beverage?) contained within the kylix; insufficient evidence exists to render this supposition conclusive.

The cups themselves commonly bear a manufacturer’s stamp on the base with the legend “Made in China”. Samples of the sandy earth which typically surrounds the structures show a high content of ash, also containing carbonised remains of the leaves of the plant Nicotiana tabacum, native to the Americas. This also a mild psychotropic, and it is believed to have been consumed by inhalation. This evidence attests to a far-flung trading network, bringing exotic substances and consumption habits to the users of these seasonally utilised structures. It is notable that the seasonal users do not appear to have made use of any of the marine resources available within the catchment area, but instead plastic food packaging was found in abundance, suggesting that they were entirely dependent on imported, high-value, processed foodstuffs.

A museum display of maniform pallets in Aghios Kosmas, Attica (via sentragoal.gr).

Another artefact type commonly associated with the Type 1 structure is the wooden maniform pallet. Similar in form to a pizzaiolo dough paddle, their small size and the absence of association with fournoi suggests that the pallets were deployed for some purpose other than panifacture. Often found in matching pairs and with distinctive wear patterns in the centre, the use of the paddles is unknown, and many scholars have suggested that they fulfilled a ritual function.


As students of this period are well aware, the contemporary documentary record is fragmentary. Although this was a society characterised by a high degree of literacy, records were preserved overwhelmingly in digital form, and were therefore largely erased by the Great Solar Storms of the mid-3rd millennium AD. We therefore rely heavily on the epigraphic and iconographic record.

The “Mykonos fragment” (early 3rd millennium AD), thought to depict ritual activity at a Type 1 structure (via protothema.gr).

A group of photographic images preserved on paper are thought to show events taking place at Type 1 structures, the best known of which is the so-called “Mykonos fragment” shown above. The photographs show crowds of predominantly young people of both sexes engaged in what appears to be an ecstatic ritual, often led by lightly clad priestesses (or anthropomorphic deities?) shown here dancing on an elevated platform.

Painted plaques attached to the exterior of a Type 1 structure dating to the early 3rd millennium AD.

Epigraphic evidence from the sites themselves comes primarily in the form of painted plaques, which support the idea that Type 1 structures were associated with rituals of a seasonal nature. The text contains brief exhortations (“LOVE”, “RELAX”, “ENJOY”) inviting celebrants to situate themselves outside the routine of secular life (in a state of “ecstasy”, from the Greek ek+stasis, stand outside), while others seem to promise rewards in the form of a mystical afterlife (“WELCOME TO OUR PIECE OF PARADISE”).

It is tempting to link these structures to fragmentary epigraphic evidence surviving from the time. A votive envelope typical of the period, uncovered in a religious/administrative complex in the Middle Anthropocene phase of the city of Thebes, contained a bundle of Euro notes, accompanied by fragments of paperwork bearing the heading “TAKT[O]ΠΟΙ[Σ]Η ΑΥΘΑΙ[ΡΕ]ΤΟΥ” (translated as “Regularisation of Unlicensed [Construction]”). Such finds have been interpreted as offerings made with the intention of regularising (i.e. preserving) an irregular structure such as those documented here. Collectively, they suggest a preoccupation on the part of the keepers of Type 1 and Type 2 structures with safeguarding private ownership and attesting to the legality of their activities within the official religious-administrative apparatus. It suggests that the boundaries between public and private land, and the right to build on it, were fluid and open to ongoing contestation, requiring repeated appeasement of the deities (authorities) on the part of their claimants. This ties in well with the stratigraphic evidence showing cycles of destruction and rebuilding (death and rebirth?), which can perhaps be seen as the physical manifestation of this contestation.

This provides an illuminating counterpoint to what we know about the society of this period, and suggests that the archaeological record can evidence an alternative “being”, or “practice” in Bourdieu’s sense, which challenges the “official” ideations of the relationship between space and power. We commonly think of the Greek polity of the period as being a highly centralised state society (“hydrocephalous” to use the terminology of some scholars). We know, for example that the Greek state was centrally administered by a powerful priestly caste, which at times comprised almost a quarter of the working population. This caste, defined by ties of real or fictive kinship, was able to mobilise and redistribute resources through a complex network of formal and informal exchange systems. This highly structured, centralised system of control contrasts sharply with the material record revealed through archaeological inquiry, which shows greater instability, a fluidity of public and private ownership, uncertainty and insecurity within the population, and ultimately evidence of a weak central state effectively contested by private “wants”.

Further Reading

As of the early 21st century AD, building on forest land and the coastal zone are prohibited by the Greek constitution, however in practice they are systematically built on illegally. Beach bars (“Type 1 structures”) and seaside tavernas are a particularly visible form of encroachment, and holiday homes in forested areas (“Type 2 structures”) are another. Repeated “regularisation” (amnesty) programmes by government and a record of selective political intervention aimed at cultivating a local client base, have tacitly encouraged this illegal building activity, while official land designations (like forestry maps) are regularly contested, either through legal challenges and legislative amendments, or by illegal activities such as building and burning, or encroachment by grazing.

Historical reviews and selected statistics on these subjects can be found (in Greek) here and here. The first linked article quotes an account by a popular Greek composer of a visit in the 1960s to then Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou (the Elder) to discuss an application by a group of artists to build a residential community in a forested area outside Athens; in the account Papandreou hugs them, picks up the phone to the Agriculture Minister and instructs him to get the area zoned for building within a month. The community (“Καλλιτεχνουπολη”) now even has an official sign on the highway.  The latter article notes that in 2001, the Municipality of Keratea in East Attica recorded 6,000 illegally built homes compared to 8,500 legal ones.

A newspaper article from last year (also in Greek) describes vividly the political interventions which prevented the enforcement of land zoning in Attica. When the demolition crews arrived to take down illegal homes which had been standing for 30 years and were declared illegal by the courts as far back as 1994, the local MP led emotional demonstrations by residents, the Interior Minister personally intervened to halt the demolition, and the regional authority warned that any more scheduled demolitions would be met by further public demonstrations. In other instances, MPs of all parties tabled amendments to legislation in order to prevent scheduled demolitions in their constituencies, one even legalising a number illegal cemeteries (another form of encroachment).

In recent years, central government has repeatedly overriden the rulings of the constitutional court intended to protect the coastal zones, including those included in the European Natura 2000 programme, by allowing municipalities to set up beachside facilities. Under the most recent legislative amendment, these facilities have been exempted from inspection, raising concerns for protected wildlife species and sensitive ecosystems.

Buried in a 7,500 page emergency omnibus bill of measures linked to completing the latest bailout review is a seemingly unrelated amendment which environmental group WWF warns could further undermine the current land classification scheme and result in the legalisation of large swathes of illegal build. [POSTSCRIPT: This amendment was removed from the final bill following criticism (according to Skai TV Eco News, 28 May 2016; however, the new law leaves considerable uncertainty around the status of forest maps, allowing plenty of potential for future abuse].

As an additional complication, Greece still lacks a comprehensive land registry and zoning map (cadastre) which makes it hard to establish ownership, particularly in rural areas.

DISCLAIMER: The absence of several pages of citations will have alerted you to the fact that this is not a genuine academic article. The final section is factual, and hyperlinks throughout lead to genuine sources.

“Our piece of Paradise”: Patterns of human activity in coastal zones of the Aegean basin in the Middle Anthropocene (late 2nd-early 3rd millennium AD)

After shock Grexit, Greece turns to Russia


After crashing ignominiously out of the Eurovision semi-finals on Tuesday, Greeks are now pinning their hopes for restoring their wounded national pride on the Russian entry. The dramatic shift in alignment is reigniting fears that a “failed state” on Europe’s eastern flank could cause a rift of historical proportions harking back to the Cold War.

Bookies’ favourite “You Are the Only One”, performed by Sergey Lazarov, was co-written by a Greek, while the effect-laden stage show is also designed by a Greek. But the kinship between the two countries goes beyond this tactical alliance. The two nations are bound by centuries of deep religious ties fostered by the Orthodox church and reignited after the fall of the Berlin wall and the re-emergence of Russian nationalism. Greece enters its seventh year of austerity measures after coming close to bankruptcy in 2009, and Russian backing was seen at times as offering an alternative to the onerous terms of the EU-IMF bailout. Greece’s overtures to date have yielded no tangible results but the latest turn of events appears to have swung Athens’s allegiances decisively. Greece’s western partners, including the EU and the United States, are troubled by the possible impact of this development on energy supplies given Greece’s nodal position in the “pipeline politics” that are unfolding in the region, but also issues as diverse as the war in Syria, the refugee crisis, and the potential geostrategic impact of the return of Greek peaches to Russian supermarkets.

Since joining the singing contest in 1994, Russia has gained the admiration of Eurovision-watchers for its ability to put forward entries of breathtaking crypto-fascist camp, while enacting domestic legislation that would see the mainstay of the Eurovision audience bundled off to Siberia. Russia set new standards for man-on-man Euro-tainment when it won the contest in 2008 with a song featuring a guest appearance by the eternally boyish Olympic Figure Skating champion Evgeni “Plushy” Plushenko.

The Russian leadership, and President Putin personally, are known to take Eurovision very seriously as a tool of geopolitical prowess. After not receiving the customary douze points from Azerbaijan in 2013, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacted in typically sanguine fashion, stating:

“Ten points were stolen from us, well not from us but from our participant… This does not makes one happy. We will agree on a unified course of action so this outrageous action will not remain without an answer.”


Disappointment over the Eurovision “Grexit” heightened tensions between Greece and its creditors. Following the result, Greek Minister of State Nikos Pappas gave what is widely regarded as a car-crash interview to Deutsche Welle’s Combat Zone. Clips aired gleefully in the Greek media showed a rattled Pappas attempting to halt the interview twice while struggling with the dictionary definition of “sunbathing” in relation to the refugee crisis, and finally storming out as the credits rolled. It has now been revealed that the interview host, perma-tanned convicted “John” and noted coke fiend Michel Friedman, had deliberately provoked the outburst by singing under his breath throughout the interview the refrain of the Greece’s failed Eurovision entry , Argo’s “Utopian Land”, “we are the rise of the rising sun”, while he closed the interview mouthing “See you in Stockholm – not“, prompting the Minister’s final walk-out.

Greeks on the streets of Athens are showing no regrets for the outcome. “This is not a Europe I want to be part of,” sighed taxi-driver Makis as he stared slack-jawed at a naked Belorussian caressing a virtual wolf onstage in Stockholm. “Gorbachev knew what he was doing with these guys alright.” He then pledged his new allegiance by spitting at the screen when the Ukrainian singer took to the stage to perform “1944” a sub-Mariah torch song about Stalin’s persecution of the Crimean Tatars.

POSTSCRIPT: On the night, Russia got its douze points from the Greek jury and dix points from the people (who preferred the Cypriot nu-metallers), but the Orthodox axis was not enough to assert the dominance of the “Blond Race”. And just to rub it in, the new voting system allowed the popular vote to award Ukraine the poison chalice of having to bust its budget on next year’s show. It’s only a matter of time before the global conspiracy behind this upset is exposed.

After shock Grexit, Greece turns to Russia

Blowout: a Greek crisis parable


One of Aunt Cassandra’s few remaining luxuries in life is getting her hair done twice a year in her favourite posh hair salon in the old money enclave of Kolonaki. Fortunately, Uncle Aristos’s prudent financial management left her with enough pocket money to allow her the occasional indulgence. So she nearly required a dose of the smelling salts this time, when she called up for an appointment to be told by an equally perplexed sounding receptionist that the business was closing down.

Gosh, she thought, things must be really bad if such an august institution is forced to close its doors, a real humanitarian crisis for the french polish and blowout set… But as is generally the case, there is more to this tale of financial woe than meets the impeccably kohled eye. After a bit of detective work among her more worldly friends, Aunt Cassandra was able to track down her favourite stylist to his new establishment just a few streets away from the old place (AC does not use mobile telephony, and so had not received the text alert that had informed her cronies on the duplicated client list of this new development).

Sitting in the gleaming white space of the brand new salon, AC was soothed by the parade of familiar faces that greeted her (stylists, colourists, manicurists, waxers, pluckers, threaders and juniors) as she dispensed with the preliminary chatter about how Kolonaki isn’t what it used to be, the list of empty addresses that used to house luxury brand stores, and how no-one who is anyone will be seen dead in Mykonos this summer, now everyone of taste and substance is Airbnb’ing on Patmos. Her stylist, the proud new proprietor with his own name now etched in calligraphy on the frosted glass doors, greeted her like an old friend and made sure she was well looked after (he even managed to get her name right, unprompted).

He didn’t need much prompting to spill the beans. The old salon, he said bluntly, had been sunk by greed and mismanagement. In the bubble years, the founder, by all accounts a charismatic rogue well-loved by the society pages, had plundered the business to fund his “hair-raising” (sic) lifestyle, then taken out bank loans to keep it solvent. At the same time he expanded the already over-leveraged business and spent millions on swanky new premises in premium locations.

The first time the salon went bust was in the credit crunch of 2009, when the banks reined in their lending and the boss couldn’t refinance his loans. The stylist described his predicament paraphrasing in a slightly more earthy way Warren Buffet’s observation that “when the tide goes out you can see who is swimming knickerless (ξεβράκωτος, xevrákotos)”. Undeterred, the boss declared the company bankrupt, moved premises, and reopened under a new company registered in his son’s name (a classic λαμογιά in the modern Greek style). The staff who were already owed several months’ wages were coaxed to stay by the promise that this would be a clean slate, and they would be paid what they were owed if they stayed on.

Things did not improve. It was common knowledge that the staff were owed months of back pay, and the owner was not paying their social security contributions. They still turned up for work, but it was clear to the observant eye that they were not engaged in their work. The business could still have succeeded, the stylist felt: it had a strong brand, a loyal and growing customer base, even in the crisis. But as the wear and tear became evident and customer service deteriorated they were deterred. He hoped that his boss would learn from his past failure, but he was disappointed to see the same mismanagement repeated. He had spent the last year in a state of constant anxiety, dreading the day when he would turn up for work to find the shop shuttered. When (not if) this happened, he would find himself at a mature age (how mature? a lady never asks for fear of impugning the quality of the dye job) having built a career from scratch, having to beg for work as a jobbing hairdresser, worrying whether he would ever accumulate enough pension credits to retire on (a far cry from the quasi-mythical Greek hairdresser of peak crisis reporting, qualifying for early retirement on a full pension).

One day he woke up with his mind made up (“as if I had seen a vision”), he moved heaven and earth and managed to find a way to start his own business. With impeccable (lucky) timing, he made his move as his old boss exited stage left pursued by creditors and tax collectors, more than likely planning his comeback. AC was too discreet to ask how he managed to scrape together the means for the gleaming new premises and equipment. She was nervous enough to notice out of the corner of her eye a nervous looking man in a black puffa jacket pacing the street outside with a mobile phone glued to his ear, and feared that her hard-working stylist had made a deal with the devil. It turned out that the man was waiting for one of the clients, whether as a friend or a security detail was not clear. Still…

Why are we even talking about Aunt Cassandra’s posh hairdresser? Surely there are more important things to worry about at the moment, as another round of austerity measures is about to take effect, and words like “Grexit” and “drachma” make a comeback in anticipation of another summer of discontent.

“Kolonaki isn’t what it used to be”, November 2015.

It struck me while listening to the story that it was a variation on a theme that one encounters repeatedly while going about one’s daily business in Greece. It is perhaps no exaggeration to think of it as one of the dominant narratives of the ongoing boom and bust cycle; but it is one that is consistently ignored in the reporting, perhaps because it lacks the spurious moral clarity of Greek victim vs. predatory lender, or lazy Greek vs. principled creditor.

Beauty salons, in common with most small businesses in the service sector, have always lent themselves to what are euphemistically termed “informal” employment practices, or the “grey economy” – casual employment, cash-in-hand payment and the associated tax evasion, non-provision of health insurance, pension contributions and other legally mandated employment benefits – as well as being ideal conduits for outright money-laundering. Both before and during the present crisis, Greece has ranked well above the European average in terms of the size of its shadow economy relative to its GDP and the size of its undeclared labour market (although by their nature, quantifying both of these is very problematic). Recent workplace inspections and surveys suggest that the shadow economy is expanding its reach, as employers find themselves squeezed by lower margins and higher contributions (or claim to), but are also able to demand their own terms from increasingly desperate prospective employees. With the highest unemployment rates in Europe at 24.4% (and youth unemployment over twice that at 52.4%), many are searching for a job, but even those that hold one are not much better off in practice. It was recently reported that two out of three private sector employees are owed between two and fifteen months’ back pay.

While AC was being pampered in the comfort of the salon, trade unions marched through central Athens only a block away as part of five days of organised strike action against a pension and tax reform bill. The juniors sweeping up the hair and making coffees were regaling one another with their adventures trying to get to work by taxi from more affordable parts of town (paid for out of their own pockets, natch) because of the public transport strikes. Young, predominantly female, employed by small businesses, they are not represented by any of the strong interest groups in the labour movement and have been some of the earliest and biggest losers of the crisis.

Since 2008, Greece has lost almost one third of its businesses under a variety of circumstances (see reports in Greek and English). These headline statistics likely mask the number that followed the model of the salon’s founder, wiping clean the slate of an indebted business only to re-emerge in another guise. Some are even less subtle about it: a souvlaki shop in our ordinary residential neighbourhood shuttered overnight leaving cutlery on the tables and a delivery van falling apart in the street, and reappeared a few months later under the exact same name and branding only a few bus stops down the road. Further up the food chain, entire media conglomerates have been doing the same. A good portion of these may not have shuttered their businesses out of genuine desperation. Recent figures show that while more than half of outstanding bank loans to businesses or individuals in Greece are in arrears, the Bank of Greece estimates that about 20% of the money in these “red” loans is owed by “strategic defaulters”, i.e. borrowers who have the assets to pay, but choose not to.

Parables are found in the most unexpected places. The posh hairdresser’s tale puts a less stereotypical face on the dry macroeconomic statistics of Greece’s boom and bust years. We don’t yet know how the story will play out: it offers a hint of redemption and new beginnings for those who jump off the merry-go-round, but also a strong indication that some obvious lessons are being systematically ignored in favour of deceptively simpler narratives of villains and victims.

“Are you saying we are a nation of hairdressers?” asks Aunt Cassandra dubiously, her agile mind ready to pounce on a logical flaw with the alacrity of a thrifty widow spying an underpriced designer handbag at a liquidation sale. Not quite. But perhaps we have something to learn from their stories.

This story is mostly true. Names and inconsequential details have been changed to protect the innocent and self-indulgent alike.

For more Aunt Cassandra, click here.

Images: pinterest, Atlantis Host.

Blowout: a Greek crisis parable